Opera Background, Part 3: Core Story

Spoiler Alert! Well, not really, you see. After all, it’s an opera. The synopsis is part of the program. There are really no surprises in an opera, except in the details of the production. So here is the history of the incident in the winter of 1800-1801 that inspired the opera, as related in Ivor Emlyn’s history of the old Smalls lighthouse, published in 1858. (Recall that Henry Whiteside was the lighthouse architect.)

From its establishment until that time, two Light-keepers only inhabited the place together; and the two on duty at the period were Thomas Howell, of Kingheriot, and Thomas Griffith, of Solva. The former was a Cooper by trade… For four months it was found impossible to land on the rock… A storm had set in, and in the course of a week or two, a signal of distress appeared hoisted at the lighthouse. At that time there was no code of signals… The many vessels that passed the place, reported at the ports they got to, that a signal of distress was out on the Smalls – but what that distress could be, none of them could tell…

The anxiety of Mr Whiteside, and the relatives of Howell and Griffith, all this time was intense. Night after night saw some of them on the cliffs, watching the lights – fearful of something having befallen the both. The non-appearance of a light would have been direct proof that such was the case; but as regularly as they watched, the light burned with its usual brightness…

The cause of distress was that one of the keepers had died, apparently due to some mysterious illness. Emlyn continues:

...poor Griffith breathed his last; then perhaps, commenced the worst chapter in the surviving Light-keeper’s experience of that sad time. Decomposition would quickly follow; and the “body of death” would vitiate the atmosphere of the too confined apartment. The body could not be thrown, to find its grave, into the sea; suspicion with her thousand tongues would point at Howell as the author of foul play – that to hide a lesser fault he had committed the greater one of murder!

Howell’s skill as a cooper, enabled him to make a coffin for his dead companion, out of boards obtained from a bulk-head in the dwelling apartment. After a great deal of labour the body was carried to the platform and firmly secured to the railing. For three weeks – weeks apparently as long as months – it occupied this position, before the weather moderated. A Milford boat at last landed two Light-keepers, and brought away Howell and the body of his companion… Howell’s attenuated form demonstrated the sufferings, both mental and physical, he had undergone; his friends, in some instances, failed to recognize him on his return home. Four months in such a place, and under such circumstances, what would it not effect? Mr Whiteside from this calamity, wisely determined that three Light-keepers should inhabit the structure at the same time; and three continue to be the number employed hitherto.

Now you know the incident that inspired the story that inspired the opera. The story is called The First and Last Letter from Thomas Griffith to his Wife and was written by For Those in Peril co-librettist Raymond Humphreys. [Note: the roles of Griffith and Howell are reversed in this story — and in the libretto — from those in Emlyn’s history.]

Read the Story

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